If you go to a cabaret or open mic night of young musical theater performers, chances are very good that at least once during the show you will hear a song from The Last Five Years. It’s an odd little anomaly of a musical — it’s never been produced on Broadway, and it only has a two-person cast, so it’s not a logical choice for high school and college programs, who are often trying to cast as many people as possible.
The score is complex, and so is the structure of the story, which is shaped like an X. It takes Jamie and Cathy from ages 23 to 28, from their budding relationship to their divorce. The beginning of the show is the sad end of the relationship, from Cathy’s point of view, while it’s the happy beginning for Jamie. Jamie moves forward in time while Cathy goes backward.
In a 2007 interview, Brown said, “The Last Five Years has no business speaking to a 15-year-old,” He added, “It’s not un-genuine, but at the same time it just feels strange to me when all they want to do is sing ‘Still Hurting’…I think, ‘What makes this song good is exactly what you can’t bring to it’” at such an age.
The show originally opened off-Broadway in 2002, then a revival of the show played at New York’s Second Stage in 2013, and it’s now a movie starring Anna Kendrick, opening today. Opposite her is Tony-nominated heartthrob Jeremy Jordan, who recently starred in the Christian Bale role in Newsies on Broadway.
Despite the sophistication of its love story, the show remains a popular one with young musical aficionados. A popular, high-brow musical isn’t always popular among teens — Nine was no great hit with the young folks when the movie came out in 2009.
So what is it that teens love about The Last Five Years?
It helps that it’s a well-crafted show. Brown’s score is sweeping yet catchy, and his lyrics are smart on a first listen, and downright genius once you’ve heard them multiple times — everything ties together impressively. The story, too, is well-written, and, like the score, challenging enough to be rewarding when done well, but not so challenging that it’s insurmountable. Both Jamie and Cathy are nuanced characters, and inspire great empathy from the audience. “I constantly got chills because of how beautifully the script is written,” says Justin Critchfeld, a 17 year-old from Dayton, Ohio, who is “absolutely in love” with the show.
Also aiding the show’s case is Brown’s status as a demi-god in the musical theater community. His three early musicals (The Last Five Years, Parade and Songs for a New World) earned him acclaim, admiration, and a Tony Award in the late 90s and early 2000s. He then wrote the youth-oriented 13, which was about and performed entirely by teenagers, including many L.A. kids when it did its out-of-town tryout at the Mark Taper Forum in 2007. When the production moved to Broadway in 2008, the cast included an unknown Ariana Grande. 13 wasn’t as widely hailed as his previous shows, but it certainly got his name out there among young musical theater fans.
And they do love performing his songs. “I work with a lot of [young] people, both men and women, who use Jason Robert Brown’s music for their auditions,” says Michael Alfera, a Los Angeles-based pianist and music director who teaches audition technique. “I think young people like singing music like this because there’s a lot to work with in the text.”
Aside from 13 and his current Broadway show, Honeymoon in Vegas, Brown’s shows deal with mature themes, like a wrongful accusation of rape (Parade), infidelity (The Bridges of Madison County) and lost love (The Last Five Years, parts of Songs for a New World). Out of those three, lost love is the most accessible to young audiences, especially those who are experiencing the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of first relationships.
“I think the play’s depiction of what relationships are like is a realistic one,” said one teen who wanted to remain anonymous. “I do see some parallels between Cathy and Jamie’s relationship and my relationships. A major theme of the show is the stage-by-stage nature of a romantic relationship. I have also experienced these stages. Obsession, love, realization that it’s not as great as I thought, deterioration, barely hanging on, and finally the break-up.” Amir Kelly, a 17 year-old from Riverside, agrees. “It delves into much more than just a love story, it shows the honest vulnerability within a realistic relationship.”
But the musical’s coup de grace may be that it’s also relatable for people who haven’t been in a relationship. That’s due to the characterization of both Jamie and Cathy, leaving the audience with a portrait of two characters who are meticulously balanced between absolution and villainy.
“[Brown’s] way of sharing both sides of the young love story in The Last Five Years really causes inner turmoil. You find yourself torn between two real characters,” Angelina Mitchell, a 17 year-old from Tallahassee, notes. “I believe Jason Robert Brown had to experience these feelings to fully understand and capture the realness of it.”
In a recent phone interview, Brown says he sees how the show could appeal to a young generation. “The romance of the show aside, it’s also a show about being young artists. Jamie and Cathy are young people who are trying to express themselves artistically…. there’s a lot about that struggle that resonates,” he says. “When something is on stage or on screen and it so accurately reflects who you are inside, or who you think you want to be, you grab on to it.”